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STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, UK — On Saturday, a festival about freedom of protest at the Royal Shakespeare Company collided dramatically with real-life dissent. The theatrical activist group BP or not BP? staged an unauthorized “Fossil Free Mischief Festival” to coincide with the RSC’s own Mischief Festival. Throughout its renegade festival, BP or not BP? called on the RSC to stop accepting money from the oil company BP, which the group believes colludes with repressive governments around the world to silence protest, while contributing to climate change.
Ten performances took place on the doorstep of the RSC’s theaters over the course of five hours on a busy Saturday afternoon. Over 70 protestors arrived dressed as Shakespearean characters, including Caliban, Juliet, and Hamlet, who formed a singing and dancing “Mischief Mob.” The protest featured live music, poetry, and a spoof wrestling match between clowns dressed as fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. Models in a drag fashion show — in which performers wore outfits inspired by solar panels and wind turbines — “lip-synced for their lives, and yours,” singing “Burn Baby Burn,” “Toxic,” and “The Tide is High.” A “Shakespearean Insult Booth” allowed visitors to dress up and get photographed holding signs with mix-and-match Bard-inspired epithets — from “BP, you … clay-witted puke stocking” to “BP, you … stony-hearted stewed prune.”
The action culminated with performers entering the RSC theater’s foyer to sing protest songs adapted from Matilda the Musical (which was first produced by the RSC) around a board displaying the museum’s sponsors. Characters named BPRosencrantz and BPGuildenstern in large ruffs shaped like BP’s sun-like Helios logo were then marched symbolically out of the building. After darkness fell, guerrilla projectionists beamed phrases such as “BP also sponsors: repressive regimes” and “BP also sponsors: climate change” onto the theater’s exterior. The RSC did not intervene in the day’s unsanctioned protests.
The RSC receives around £375,000 (~$496,000) per year from BP, making up just 0.6% of the theater’s annual income. This money sponsors the venue’s £5 ticket scheme for 16–25 year olds. BP or not BP? argues that, given the RSC’s £4 million (~$5.3 million) annual surplus, the scheme could easily be funded in-house. High-profile actors including Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Mark Rylance are supporting the ongoing Fossil Free £5 Tickets crowd-funding project. Rylance has spoken publicly about refusing to perform at the RSC until it drops BP’s sponsorship.
“We’re delighted that the RSC is showcasing new, political plays about freedom of speech,” Sarah Horne, a member of BP or not BP?, told Hyperallergic. “The shows in the official Mischief Festival — Day of the Living and #WeAreArrested — tell vital stories of struggles against repression in Mexico and Turkey. But it is deeply upsetting to see these plays being used by BP to position itself as a champion of free speech while colluding with governments that silence people speaking out against the oil and gas industry around the world.”
Fellow BP or not BP? performer Danny Chivers added: “The RSC want to appear open-minded and progressive, but how can they do this while taking BP’s money? Being branded with BP’s logo undercuts their values. We’ve heard from sources within the organization that there’s internal dissent on the topic, and that this is currently a live debate. It’s our job to add to that pressure.”
Passersby on their way to the theater stopped to watch the action, which provoked responses ranging from supportive to unconvinced. One visitor told Hyperallergic: “It’s an interesting question. Is that money better off in the pockets of BP’s shareholders or used by the RSC? I’d prefer the latter, but it’s definitely a moral dilemma.” Another opined: “At least BP’s money is going somewhere good. It would be better if RSC chose another company, but is there any such thing as an ethical corporate sponsor?” A passing tourist defended the oil company, saying: “BP are trying to get better – when you compare what they were like 20 years to today, there’s no comparison … they’re even moving into solar energy. I think the theater should take the money if it’s there.”
In recent years, many venues have signed up to the Oil Sponsorship Free commitment, including the Royal Court, Red Ladder and Arcola theaters. Oil Sponsorship Free argues that sponsorship gives companies the “social license to operate.” The group states: “The voices of respected artists and cultural institutions are co-opted to drown out the voices of those whose rights, health, family, and subsistence are endangered by oil drilling.” Pressure from activist groups in the Art Not Oil Coalition (such as Liberate Tate and Platform London) have led to BP’s sponsorship being dropped by both Tate and the Edinburgh Festival in 2016.
It’s unknown whether the RSC will follow the lead of other arts organisations in the future, but for now the official line is clear. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, an RSC spokesperson said:
BP’s sponsorship of our £5 ticket scheme for 16–25 year olds gives many young people the chance to see our work. The scheme is highly valued by our audiences and helps us establish lifetime enthusiasts for Shakespeare and live theatre. Corporate sponsorship is an important part of our diverse funding mix, alongside ticket sales, public investment, private philanthropy and commercial activity.
We have a clear donation and sponsorship acceptance policy, and consider potential offers of support individually. Importantly, no sponsor influences or drives our artistic decision making and we remain committed to exploring contemporary issues and ideas in all our work.
Despite activists demanding “Out, damned logo!”, it seems as if the RSC dropping BP is not to be — for now.
Full cast and crew credits for the “Fossil Free Mischief Festival”:
The overall event was organized by BP or not BP?, who also created the Mischief Mob, the BP Also Sponsors vigil, the Shakespearean Insult Booth, and the final singing foyer invasion
The guest poets were Nadeem Din-Gabisi and Handsen Chikowore
The guest musician was Pete the Temp
The drag lip sync battlers were called Lip Sync For Our Lives: Renewable Runway
The clown wrestlers were the RenewRebels
Food was by the Veggies Catering Campaign
Projections were by Feral X